Make Money for Charity Debating Fundamentalists, Part II: The Ten Ethical Debating Rulesby Robert A. Yourell, MA | March 11, 2008
In part one, I suggested two games that hold people accountable for having a meaningful debate. Here are my suggestions for the rules of ethical debate that you can use for awarding points. The first items have more points because they are the most important ones; focusing the strongest attention to them acts as a wedge for introducing ethical debate. The high point items do the most to destabilize a civilized discussion, so they are the first ones you’ll want to get under control. They are also the most primitive and brutal tactics, and are the first ones that unethical debaters reach for. Once those are understood, the others will come into focus more easily.
It’s best to have a trusted, objective third party who will be the Decider. When there is controversy over when to award points, the Decider gets the final say. If there is more than one, it should be an odd number so there is a deciding vote. Each debating party can call to have points awarded to them when the other party violates one of the ten rules.
A variation on the games is to record the discussion, and then listen to it to award points. This isn’t as exciting, though, and it won’t modify behavior during the discussion. But having cash stakes will help keep it interesting.
1. No Personal Attacks – 10 points
When you can’t defend your ideas, admit it. Unethical people try to hide the fact by attacking the other person, as if that attack means that their opinions or facts are wrong. Example, “You hate America.” (Names: The Ad Hominem Attack, Argumentum ad hominem, attack aimed at the person)
2. Stop Repeating Yourself and Getting Louder and being Intimidating – 8 points
Some people think repeating themselves or getting loud makes them right or erases your facts. You may need a third party to decide where to draw the line, after all, debates do get heated, and people do need to restate their positions at times. Each can challenge the other to add something new so that it isn’t just a repetition, or to restate it in a normal tone of voice, to prevent points from being deducted. This is more to keep things from turning into a circus, rather than to win points, because challenging the behavior engages the person who is getting antagonized in something other than reacting at the same low level as the other party. Names: Argument to the point of disgust (argumentum ad nauseam), appeal to force (argumentum ad baculum, latin for appeal to the cudgel or stick, arguing via intimidation).
3. No Rewriting the Other Person’s Opinion – 8 points
Don’t tell the person what their opinion is and attack your version of it. Ask them if you understand their opinion first. Unethical people will change the other party’s opinion into something stupid, immoral, or incorrect, and accuse the other person of being wrong based on that. (Name: The Straw Man Attack)
4. Interruptions Allowed When? – 6 points
Interrupting is usually a manipulative tactic. William F. Buckley was adept at knowing just when to interrupt in order to unethically interfere with others. He could even prevent a brilliant thinker like Noam Chomsky from getting is key points across. However, if your sparring partner is repeating and hogging the conversation, then you may interrupt to renegotiate the discussion without losing points. This can be a point of contention, of course. This is a good reason to have a time-limited turn taking format. If you’re dying to interrupt because of what the person just said, but it wasn’t a chance for you to score a point, then respond to the issue when they are done speaking or you’ll lose points. Coercive questions qualify as interruptions. Don’t try to control your sparring partner with questions such as, “Just answer this yes or no!” This is a debate, not a cross examination or Fox News.
Okay, now we’re past the most barbaric items. However, the remainder are not all that subtle.
5. Don’t Make Stuff Up – 4 points
People who put winning ahead of ethics will make things up. If you have source materials or an Internet connection, you can stop the clock and look it up. You should both be prepared with materials or links to defend your assertions as to factual information. This rule can only apply to single facts that can be checked. Broader assertions are the kind of thing that gets debated, so they are not subject to this rule. A checkable fact would be the number of dead that credible authorities have estimated occurred as the result of a war. A broader assertion would be that a country has only entered certain conflicts to enhance the power of the super wealthy interests that it serves.
6. No Gross Generalizations – 2 points
A few examples don’t make a general fact. If some criminal CEO’s were Christians, not all Christians are criminals. There is a television commentator who will respond to a good challenge in a debate by throwing out one of each of these: a newspaper headline, a cliche, a stereotype, and a familiar media image. Then he looks at his opponent with this Mona Lisa smile, as if he’d just made a point. Names: I invented a name for this move, the Cornpone 360, because of the ridiculous rhetoric used in the play Lil’ Abner by politician Jubilation T. Cornpone, and the way the commentator would work around this circle of items to achieve a generalization (actually clocking around his imaginary circle with gestures and eye movements). Also: The fallacy of the undistributed middle, and sweeping generalization (dicto simpliciter, latin for “spoken simply.”)
7. No Invisible Authorities – 1 point
Specify who you are talking about. Here’s an example of unethical rhetoric: “Science lost its credibility when ‘consensus’ was inserted as validation of science. (i.e. Global Warming)” The idea that science lost it’s credibility is a real howler. Who are the people that stopped believing in science, exactly? Who changed science so that consensus alone validated it? This statement is really meaningless, and when the person is challenged to specify who the people are, it becomes more obvious. Often, these statements require the passive voice to hide the fact that they don’t know who they are talking about. If you ask “who?,” and the other party can’t tell you, then you win a point. The example above would net you two points. Name: Appeal to authority (ad verecundiam)
8. No Mythical Authorities – 1 point
The facts don’t care if George Washington believed it. If you are debating about facts, then debate about whether you can verify them. If you believe that people will do unethical things because they believe in evolution, don’t say evolution is untrue, discuss your basis for believing that these unethical things will happen, and how they can be prevented. If you think something is unnatural and therefore wrong, don’t waste my time with that. Hemlock is natural, getting an X-ray of a broken bone is unnatural, lightening rods are unnatural. Tell me what bad thing will happen as a result of this unnatural thing. Is homosexuality unnatural? What bad things have happened where communities have accepted homosexuality, then tell me how you know those things happened and that they don’t happen in other communities. (Names: The appeal to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam), and the appeal to nature, the argument to antiquity or tradition (argumentum ad antiquitatem).
9. Incomplete Theories are Not Completely Wrong – 1 point
Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. You can find glitches in evolutionary theory and in the aging of the earth. That doesn’t automatically mean that evolution does not exist and that the Biblical age of the earth is automatically proven. Name: Argument to logic (argumentum ad logicam, the fallacy of assuming that something is false just because you found an argument for it that is wrong).
10. A Million Flies Can’t be Wrong! – 1 point
Don’t insist that it’s true just because a lot of people believe it. I don’t care if everybody knows it, support your opinion. Name: Appeal to numbers (argumentum ad numerum), appeal to the public (argumentum ad populum).
There are other notable violations of good rhetoric, but I believe the above are the most important “wedge” concepts to create an intellectual environment where a functional debate is possible at all. If just these were widely understood, then we’d all be better off.
Wikipedia lists logical fallacies. As of this writing, there are 75. There is a page for each, and there are categorical listings. It is a good idea to be ready to respond to each type of fallacy in a way that makes it obviously wrong.
In part three, I’ll provide some additional ideas to help you discuss things with fundamentalists in a productive way. These ideas also bear consideration for our schools. Debate is a structured activity at many schools, and scoring systems deal with matters such as how well the students were armed with information, but all students should have experience in games or debates using these ten rules.
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